At a small liberal arts college in rural Iowa, students who work in the libraries, mailroom, and other campus workplaces have undertaken an ambitious organizing drive.
Two years ago, 350 dining-hall workers at Grinnell College made history when they formed the first union of undergraduate workers at a private college. Now hundreds of other student workers on campus are campaigning to join them.
Without lawyers or an international union behind them, these young workers represented themselves at the National Labor Relations Board, up against high-powered “union avoidance” lawyers and university administrators — and won. They’re set for a November 27 election.
Grinnell, founded by abolitionists and once a stop on the underground railroad, has a reputation for its commitment to social justice. Yet this October, Grinnell’s lawyers outrageously claimed that a union would “erode the egalitarian nature” of the college, creating a “caste system” and turning student workers into “an underclass of serfs.”
Undergrads Go Union
While graduate workers — teaching assistants and research assistants — have made the headlines, Grinnell’s undergraduate student workers have opened up new organizing possibilities for undergrads across the country.
Student dining workers got the ball rolling during the spring 2016 semester when they started researching ways to alleviate low pay and understaffing.
“Wages hadn’t been raised in seven years, since before the Great Recession,” said Cory McCartan, a founding member of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers who is now a fourth-year student.
Meanwhile Grinnell’s tuition had gone up by more than 35 percent. It currently stands north of $50,000 annually. To McCartan, a union for the students working in dining halls was an “obvious solution.”
“Not only would we be able to address the immediate issue of wages and understaffing, but we’d be able to tackle other problems that arose later,” he said.
So McCartan researched the process to form a union and gain legal recognition. He and a co-worker began asking other workers to sign union authorization cards. Within a month, they had the 30 percent necessary, and filed for an election.
For this first election, Grinnell remained neutral. Workers voted 91 percent “yes” on May 5, 2016.
Since then the UGSDW has won victories including a 9 percent wage increase, bonuses for those who work more than 110 hours a semester, paid rest breaks, and a formal grievance procedure that has been instrumental in helping many wrongfully terminated student workers get their jobs back.
This summer, the union won reinstatement for 146 student dining-hall employees who were fired in May for allegedly not picking up enough shifts during finals.
The union also won equal wages for local high school students who work alongside union members in the dining hall.
A Unique Structure
The UGSDW is an independent union not affiliated with any International. Its suggested dues are just $2 per month; it has no staff and limited financial resources. It’s not a model that will work everywhere, but it’s serving these students well for now.
One rare feature of UGSDW is its short contracts — their first contract lasted one year, and their second is a little under two. Frequent contract negotiations help keep members engaged and active.
High turnover is inevitable, since a quarter of the bargaining unit graduates every year. That means UGSDW has to work continuously to develop new leaders.
Last year, the union switched from a four-member leadership team to a larger, flexible executive board that includes a number of at-large members. To ensure that younger members develop as leaders, fourth-year students are not allowed to be on the executive board.
The only other union on Grinnell’s campus is Teamsters Local 90, which represents facilities workers. Full-time dining-hall workers are not unionized. In its contract, the UGSDW secured the right not to cross any picket lines on campus.
Since last fall, UGSDW has been working to organize beyond the dining hall. As members moved on to different campus jobs and other student workers learned about what the UGSDW had won, many began to see the value of a union.
Union members have knocked on 900 dorm-room doors to talk with fellow students one on one. The college has an undergraduate population of 1,700 students. The union estimates that 950 work outside of the already-unionized dining halls, and says more than 500 of those have signed union authorization cards. On October 8, the union filed for an election to expand the bargaining unit.
This time Grinnell isn’t staying neutral. University administrators challenged the petition and are opposing the expansion of the union, claiming that student jobs working in the library or endowment office or as research assistants or tutors are merely educational.
“People come here to get an education,” Grinnell’s President Raynard Kingston told the NLRB. “They don’t come here to work.” Most of the 75 percent of students who do work, Kingston argued, are doing it to build their resumes. Besides, even students who work non-educational jobs, such as the lifeguards, get to read on their break times — so why do they need a union? (For more highlights from the NLRB hearing, see the full transcript here.)
At a meeting with the union last fall, Kingston proposed a student committee that would meet annually with the administration to discuss workplace issues, instead of an NLRB-certified union.
“We think such a process is toothless and undemocratic, building no power for working students and providing no accountability for the administration,” said Sam Xu, a third-year student and union executive board member.
Grinnell’s union-busting “has spurred a huge backlash,” Xu said, “from not only current students but also alumni, who often chose Grinnell College because of its commitment to social justice.” Students have voiced their support on social media and at rallies on campus. Hundreds of alumni signed an open letter supporting the union’s growth.
DIY at the NLRB
As an independent union with a tiny budget, UGSDW couldn’t afford outside legal help. So members conducted legal research and represented themselves before the NLRB October 17 and 18.
McCartan and Xu told the campus newspaper, The Scarlet and Black, that they drew on mock trial experience and the Internet to prepare. During the two-day hearing, student workers spoke about how important their campus jobs are to pay for tuition and basic necessities.
Lawyers from Iowa’s largest law firm represented Grinnell’s administration. During students’ testimonies about financial aid and working to attend college, one of Grinnell’s lawyers asked a student worker who was testifying if she thought she was “entitled to more financial aid” than she currently gets. The implied jab, invoking the stereotype of the entitled young person, made students especially angry.
Despite all the obstacles, on November 5 the NLRB ruled in favor of the student workers’ petition for an election.
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